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I saw Andy Warhol in person just once - sitting in the front row at Fabrice's fashion show in New York City. He was much smaller than I had expected, a slight, almost emaciated figure dressed in black. The face was vampire pale; the white wig a trifle askew. But I remember the eyes most of all. Sharp, bright eyes that darted about the room recording everything that went on.

Andy Warhol, the king of the pop art scene, was an observer extraordinaire. Whether attending a fashion show, hobnobbing with celebrities or exploring New York's night life, the strange little man always was the consummate reporter - an emotionally detached and objective soul more interested in watching than participating.Now he's gone. But his astute observations, preserved by the artist's medium, remain to intrigue and mystify. Banal at first glance, they invite a second look and a third. They provoke questions. Many questions. Is there more to those Campbell soup cans than is outwardly obvious? What hidden message lies behind the seductive lips and come-hither eyes in the "Marilyn Monroe Six-Pack on Canvas"? Was Warhol simply recording the everyday symbols of modern society with polymer and silk screen or was he trying to express a far more substantial message and give us new insight into ourselves?

These questions may never be answered. But they are certainly at the forefront demanding consideration in the Andy Warhol retrospective that premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this spring and now is on display through Aug. 13 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The exhibit, the first comprehensive retrospective devoted to the work of the American pop artist, features approximately 300 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and films drawn from public and private collections in nine countries.

Featured pieces span Warhol's prolific career, which began in the '50s and ended with his death in 1987. Included are works based on advertisements and comic strips; portraits from the early '60s (Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy); disaster images (car crashes, electric chairs); flower images; and the commanding 1972-74 series of Chairman Mao. Also spotlighted are a number of self portraits. Especially interesting to the art student are very early designs for shoes and cosmetics - spare pen and ink drawings, often embellished with acrylic washes or gold leaf.

The delightful drawings of shoes and such come from the first chapter in Andy's professional life when he shortened his name from Warhola and was working as a commercial artist in New York. It was an intensely productive period fueled by fear of failure and inability to pay the rent. Warhol came from modest financial means, you see. His parents were Czech immigrants who settled in Pittsburgh. His mother, Julia, spoke only broken English and had to do housework after her husband died.

"I never wanted to be a painter. I wanted to be a tap dancer," the artist always said. Perhaps that was true. Or maybe Andy was talking tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, making money was a prime concern and art seemed to offer more opportunity than a career on the stage for the slightly built, rather homely man with hawk-like eyes. So he moved to New York with hopes of making his natural abilities at portraiture and sketching pay off.

They quickly did. Within a very short time Warhol was winning awards and attracting attention for his commercial art. Soon he began to paint, adapting the look and techniques of his successful advertising career to the canvas.

Along with a number of other painters - Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist - Warhol became known as a pop artist, challenging the values and philosophies of the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists.

In contrast to the Abstract Expressionists, who emphasized large-scale gesture and individual expression, members of Andy's group responded to the specific urban environment. They took into account the most mundane facts of daily life in America - how ordinary things looked, how most information was transmitted.

As Warhol once observed: "The pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second - comics, picnic tables, men's trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles - all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all."

Within this artistic framework, Warhol quickly emerged as a leader, choosing to portray the grittiest, tackiest and most commonplace. His unorthodox painting technique also made waves. Beginning with the tracings and transfer drawings of his commercial work, he removed himself increasingly from his creations transferring ready-made images to the canvas with an opaque projector, hand-carved wooden rubber stamps and, eventually, the photo silk screen method that became his trademark.

While most artists seek to put as much of themselves as possible into their work, Warhol sought to remove himself from the canvas and create an impersonal assembly-line effect. His first silk screened paintings, in which air mail stamps, Coca-Cola bottles and dollar bills fill the canvas, stress this approach. They also introduce the idea of serial imagery - something that came to dominate and distinguish his style.

You'll see serial imagery and feel its strange, almost eerie, power if you visit the retrospective. One of the best examples, certainly, is a work entitled "Electric Chair." Warhol juxtaposes 15 electric chairs in the piece and washes the canvas with a background of ultramarine blue. Not something to hang above your fireplace unless you enjoy the macabre. Yet, the work is unforgettable. It's a warning against crime so vivid that you find yourself making a silent pledge to always walk the straight and narrow!

Not everything in the Warhol exhibit, however, is sad and unsettling.

Cartoon characters smile at you from the walls and you find yourself smiling back. Ordinary cartons and boxes are reinterpreted as artistic statements. Warhol-designed wallpaper, imprinted with cows, gazes benevolently down on you. A set of six-foot square self portraits watches over all. Look at the conglomeration long enough and you'll begin - just begin, mind you - to see inside the creative mind of the artist.

Warhol's mind had so many facets! Just when you think you've seen them all and understand the man's creative approach, something else surfaces.

In 1963, for example, he turned his attention from painting to film-making and became increasingly occupied with the medium. Then it was back to painting in the early '70s with Mao, a series based on the ubiquitous photograph printed in Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book."

Throughout the '70s and early '80s, Warhol continued making portraits of society and art world figures, experimenting with abstract, gestural backgrounds and the overlay of multi-colored camouflage.

Warhol's last works consist of a variety of advertising commissions, print portfolios and large-scale complications that incorporate styles and subjects from his early artistic undertakings. In his Retrospective and Reversals series, for example, Marilyn, Mao and disaster images resurface. The exhibition concludes with "Last Supper," a series derived from a dime-store replica of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, and "Moonwalk," a print from a proposed History of Television series left unfinished at the time of the artist's death on Feb. 22, 1987.

The death of Andy Warhol from complications following an operation was untimely and sad. Most art critics seem to believe that he would have continued to explore new mediums and subject matter and would have continued to set the art community on its ear.

Most authorities also agree that had Warhol lived long enough it might have been easier to separate his bizarre persona from his talent. For years, they say, the mere mention of the artist's name conjured up visions of the Factory where hippies and hangers-on gathered and almost everyone ended up in a film. (Some of Warhol's movie classics are being shown in conjunction with the retrospective.)

Stories swirled around him and his off-beat entourage. The publicity often overshadowed the art and so did the artist's quotable quotes, including: "In the future everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

Warhol was famous for a lot longer than 15 minutes in his lifetime and the aura lives on. But beyond the hype, beyond the wild stories, beyond the fascinating personality, there was real genius. Most authorities are just now beginning to recognize his artistic contributions. They are just now beginning to understand the role he played in the pop art movement and the inspiration he provided for others. And that's why the retrospective mounted in his honor deserves a visit.

Tickets to the The Warhol exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago are $5 and may be reserved through Ticketron 1-800-843-1558. Exhibit hours are Tuesday 10:30-8; Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 10:30 to 4:30 ; Saturday 10-5 Sunday and holidays, 12 to 5.